Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 6 of 41

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Must-pass workers’ compensation, AOB reform languishing in Legislature

With House and Senate leaders caught up with budget negotiations ahead of Friday’s deadline for adjournment, advocates for legislative fixes for assignment of benefits and workers’ compensation reform confronted this possibility:

Their must-pass legislation might not pass.

There’s a workers’ compensation bill on the Senate calendar, but it differs in significant respects from the version the House adopted, and it was unclear whether those differences could be reconciled in the time left.

Meanwhile, the House has adopted assignment of benefits, or AOB, reforms. But Senate version languishes in the Rules Committee.

“The problem we have right now is a bandwidth issue, with leaders being so involved in these (budget) numbers that they can’t really focus on these policies or strategies, or how we would do it — which bill, this and that,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, who sits on the Banking and Insurance Committee and is sponsor of the Senate AOB bill.

“That’s been the impediment we’ve been seeing. If we are going to extend, the way some people are speculating now, maybe that will give us a few extra days to get something done,” Farmer said.

“At this point, we would take anything as movement,” said Rep. James Grant, co-sponsor of the House AOB bill.

“The dialog has been very good. We have the ability to move stuff when we receive it on either side of the rotunda. We just need them to send us something to start the process,” he said.

Insurance companies and their business allies ardently desire both bills, chiefly as a means to control rising premiums. The Office of Insurance Regulation approved a 14.5 percent hike in workers’ comp rates last year, and interior water claims are driving up costs for property insurers.

The Senate workers’ compensation bill, CS/SB 1582, is more generous that the House version with attorney fees in claims challenges — it would let compensation claims judges depart from the state’s fee schedule by as much as $250 per hour if justified, as opposed to $150 in the House.

Another significant difference is that the Senate would shift to a loss cost premium-setting system, whereby insurers would independently propose rates to state regulators, instead of as a group, as most do now.

Sponsor Rob Bradley has said his bill would decrease premiums by a “small to moderate” amount, versus at least 5 percent in the House. But he’s deeply involved in negotiations over spending on environmental priorities.

The House approved its workers’ compensation bill, HB 7085, on April 19.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier’s top priority this year is legislation to make it harder for unscrupulous contractors and attorneys armed with AOB agreements to inflate claims and run up legal fees.

The House has approved an Altmaier-approved AOB bill, PCS/HB 1421, which would tighten requirements for contractors to report claims to insurance companies and establish a graduated scale for determining whether attorneys qualify to recover litigation expenses from carriers.

Grant has said that the bill would forestall increases in property insurance rates approaching 50 percent.

In the Senate, the Rules Committee adjourned its final meeting last week without reaching a Farmer bill that would bar insurers from including attorney fees paid in benefits litigation when calculating premium levels.

Farmer had hoped to attach his AOB bill to that measure.

“We’ll have to see if Rules has another meeting, or if there’s some other way to get this bill moving,” Farmer said at the time.

Florida Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Carolyn Johnson could live with that, if it keeps AOB reform alive.

“Then hopefully, we might be able to get some meaningful reform,” she said — even though the Chamber opposes key elements of Farmer’s bill.

So could Grant.

“If they would pull something up and move something, we would be in a very good place,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re that far off,” Grant said of the House and Senate philosophical approaches.

“The conversations I have been a part of agree to the same two-tier criteria we’ve been talking about all along on our side — reduce premiums and not mess with a homeowner who has been paying his premiums and has a legitimate loss.”

Insurance lobbyist Tim Meenan would be comfortable with the House position on AOB reform. But he questioned the Senate’s appetite for parliamentary tricks with the budget still unsettled.

“Is the Senate up to that with only three days to go? The answer is probably no,” Meenan said. “But waive the rules with a two-thirds vote, and you’re off to the races.”

Lawmakers, lobbyists begin to contemplate an extended session

House Speaker Richard Corcoran insisted Tuesday that he still hoped to complete a budget deal in time to adjourn on schedule Friday — but other lawmakers and Tallahassee’s lobbyists have begun clearing their calendars for next week.

“I think it’s 90 percent likely,” Corcoran said of chances the negotiations with the Senate could be wrapped up that day, conceivably allowing a timely adjournment.

Sen. Jeff Brandes wasn’t counting on it.

“Monday — it’s my best guess. That’s my math,” Brandes said.

It takes 36 hours to prepare a compromise Appropriations Act for presentation to House members and senators, he said.

“It’s a complicated process, even once it’s all agreed to,” he said.

That would be in line with lobbyists’ scuttlebutt, according to one health care advocate. He predicted a budget deal would go to the members by Friday, giving them the weekend to review the bill.

Sen. Rob Bradley, who’s participating in negotiations over environmental spending, argued against selling legislative staff short.

“They have magical power to produce these bills quickly. It’s a complicated task, but it’s not impossible,” Bradley said.

A deal Tuesday would leave the House and Senate with the rest of the week to consider conforming bills, Corcoran said.

Asked which bills, apart from the budget, he’d be willing to consider if the Legislature extends, Corcoran said, “You can ask me that if we get there.”

What kind of overtime was he considering?

“We’re not. I told you, we’re hopeful we’ll get done,” Corcoran said.

“Last time I checked, I think every single conforming bill I’ve ever voted for was done on probably Wednesday, Thursday,” he told reporters.

The biggest hold-up was reimbursement levels for hospitals treating indigent patients under Medicaid, Corcoran said.

The Trump administration has promised enough money to, with a state match, provide $1.5 million for Florida’s Low Income Pool program, but House leaders want to see the money before they agree how to spend it.

Opioid-crackdown bill picks up potentially deadly amendment in Senate

The Senate adopted an amendment Tuesday easing mandatory-minimum prison sentences in a bill cracking down on trafficking in synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and carfentanil.

Senate President Joe Negron ruled that Sen. Randolph Bracy’s amendment had passed on a voice vote, following an impassioned debate touching on the drugs’ dangers and the damage minimum-mandatory sentencing has done to communities.

The amended legislation awaits a final vote.

“Man, this was one of my noncontroversial bills that I filed this session,” Senate sponsor Greg Steube said.

He said he was willing to address the sentencing issue with Bracy, but warned that the amendment would endanger his bill.

“Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than morphine. That’s what we’re talking about here,” Steube said.

“The other piece of this is, we’re in Tuesday of the last week in session, and if an amendment goes on, I don’t know if the House is going to be willing to take it up,” he said.

Bracy argued that defendants typically never knew they’d dealt in substances containing the targeted drugs.

“For us to send someone to prison for possibly 25 years, when they have no idea what is in this drug, I think is wrong,” he said.

HB 477 targets fentanyl and related substances that, when administered by themselves or in combination with other drugs, can prove deadly, for tougher sentencing. For example, it would add fentanyl and derivatives to the list of Schedule I drugs and provides that trafficking in them resulting in death constitutes murder.

Bracy’s amendment would give judges discretion to depart from minimum sentences. Under the original language, for example, possession of less than 14 grams of fentanyl would bring at least three years in prison; up to 28 grams would bring 15; and and 28 or more grams would bring 25.

Bracy said he’d agreed to hear the bill in his Criminal Justice Committee contingent on giving judges sentencing discretion.

But Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said he’d reinstated the mandatory penalties in his own committee, citing the seriousness of Florida’s opioid crisis.

Support for the amendment crossed party lines. Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes argued that judges need the same discretion in sentencing prosecutors hold in charging drug crimes.

“We’re not asking for anything radical,” Brandes said. “We’re asking for something that people do every day as prosecutors, to give that same exact authority to judges who are independent third parties who are supposed to oversee this process and make sure that travesties of justice don’t occur.”

A number of senators said they’d changed their minds about the wisdom of mandatory-minimum sentencing, including Democrat Darryl Rouson and Republican Rene Garcia. “Drug addition shouldn’t be a crime. It’s an illness,” Garcia said.

“I do trust our judges,” Sen. Kelli Stargel said, arguing against the amendment, but “this drug is killing people.”

Joe Negron sees ‘good progress’ toward budget deal as session enters final week

Senate President Joe Negron held out hope Monday evening that he and House Speaker Richard Corcoran could resolve lingering disagreements about the state budget in time to present a bill Tuesday and adjourn as scheduled on Friday.

“I know there was some real good progress made today on a number of issues, particularly in the environmental budget. If we work diligently through the rest of the afternoon and evening, I’m still optimistic that we can get it done,” Negron told reporters following Monday’s floor session.

“I think it’s more important to get it done right than to get it done quickly,” he said. “But my goal is to be able to have a budget on the desk sometime tomorrow.”

As of 5:30, no public budget negotiations had been formally noticed.

Monday was marked by progress on a number of levels.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committee chairmen — Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala — kicked unresolved differences to Negron and Corcoran Sunday but continued to negotiate with each other as the formal work week opened.

“There’s still significant involvement by both Appropriations chairs, in particular, but also the sub-chairs. They know their budgets the best,” Negron said.

Meanwhile, must-pass legislation advanced in Senate committee and on the floor. That included a $75 million tax package and a homestead exemption increase.

The House had demanded the latter proposal as a condition to expanding gambling options, as the Senate wants to do. The gambling bill could provide millions for state programs, Negron said.

“The budget that we have is a strong budget, but I think it could be even better if we have a couple hundred million dollars to consider expanding the tax package,” Negron said. “We could even put some of it into increasing our reserves — and I know that was a strong position of the House, to have reserves.”

The House-Senate compromise tax package falls far short of the $618 million in breaks proposed by Gov. Rick Scott.

“We funded what we think is appropriate based on the revenues that we have,” Negron said.

Homestead exemption expansion wins supermajority vote in Senate

The Senate approved a proposed ballot measure Monday to raise the value of Florida’s homestead exemption, improving chances that separate legislation to expand gambling would survive the Legislative Session.

The vote was 28-10, within the required three-fifths majority.

House leaders, who have been reluctant to open Florida to additional gambling options, have made approval of legislation to do that contingent on passage of the homestead exemption increase.

Several senators referred to those stakes, but sponsor Tom Lee maintained that the resolution was about keeping people in their homes.

“Let’s respect property rights. Let’s give the people the opportunity to make this decision,” Lee said. “They will make the right call.”

Amendments to scale back the increase to $12,500, to let county commissions opt out, and to shift the effective date to 2022, failed on voice votes.

HJR 7105 would raise Florida’s homestead exemption to $75,000 on property values of as much as $125,000, effective Jan. 1, 2019.

The increase would not apply to school taxes. And it would be subject to approval by at least 60 percent of Florida voters.

A companion measure, HB 7107, would shield financially strapped small counties by promising state money to backfill any losses in revenue.

The Senate language would cost $644 million. The original House version was priced at nearly $795 million.

Opponents argued that Florida already is a low-tax state, and that raising the exemption would force local governments either to raise tax rates or cut back services, especially to lower-income Floridians. Renters would pay more, too, they said.

“If we think that we need to cut taxes … why don’t we just do it, instead of pushing it off on local officials and then blaming them with they increase the tax rate?” Sen. Jeff Clemens said.

Sen. Gary Farmer complained that no a committee of substance ever studied the wisdom of the proposal. Rather, it was rushed through the Rules Committee last week.

“I know we’re toward the end of the session, and things start getting a little funky,” Farmer said.

“I think it’s hard for us to fully understand the fairness of this change when the issue has not been fully vetted though the committee process,” he said.

Sen. Perry Thurston said every local official in his Broward County district opposed the rollback. “This is going to pass if we approve it. But who’s it going to hurt?” he said.

Sen. Denise Grimsley expressed reservations about the potential for budget cuts for police, firefighters, and other first responders, but concluded the voters would make the right decision.

While conceding the potential for harm, Sen. Darryl Rouson expressed faith in the voters.

“I expect to take some heat,” he said. But he offered: “Strip every project I have from the budget. It’s not about the projects. It’s about a fundamental belief that do the people deserve the right to speak.”

“They will figure it out. And I trust whatever decision they’re going to make,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson.

Lee said it wasn’t true that the bill was never heard in a committee of substance — the Community Affairs Committee debated it on March 22.

Tax breaks clear Senate Appropriations as session enters final scheduled week

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved some $75 million in tax breaks Monday, including repeal of Florida’s tampon tax, that would be central to passing an $83 billion budget and ending the Legislative Session on time Friday.

The committee also approved across-the-board pay raises for state workers, with extra money for high-risk employees, plus an option to participate in a defined-contribution retirement plan instead of a traditional pension.

“I am pleased to see a tax package advance to the Senate floor that incorporates several ideas promoted by the Senate throughout the 2017 Legislative Session,” Senate President Joe Negron said in a written statement.

“This tax relief package continues our commitment to reducing the tax burden facing Florida families and businesses in a broad-based and meaningful way.”

The package would reduce the sales tax on commercial leases from the existing 6 percent to 5.8 percent — not eliminate it entirely, as Gov. Rick Scott wanted.

It would provide a three-day sales tax holiday for back-to-school purchases, and exempt feminine hygiene products, construction materials for projects in rural areas of opportunity, and health products for agriculture and aquaculture.

It also would provide tax breaks to encourage construction of large data centers, and to encourage construction of low-income housing.

The House approved some $300 million in tax breaks and holidays, but would go along with the Senate version, Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said.

“I believe that’s an agreed-upon bill,” he said. “I think all together that’s $75 or $80 million.”

Associated Industries of Florida praised passage of the tax bill.

“AIF supports reducing taxes, such as the business rent tax, to attract new businesses to the Sunshine State,” president and CEO Tom Feeney said in a written statement.

“With Florida being the only state in the nation to charge taxes on the lease of commercial property, AIF supports a gradual reduction and eventual elimination of the business rent tax to the benefit of Florida small and large businesses,” he said.

 

Union representatives argued against the retirement fund shift, which the committee amended onto a bill creating a legal presumption that cancers common to firefighters are work-related.

Workers would have nine months to choose, and could change their minds later. The same amendment would let state workers chose among a three-tier health insurance options

Latvala suggested they were foolish to oppose the measure.

“Did my irritation come through there?” Latvala asked reporters later.

“There’s nobody that’s fought harder for our public employees in Florida for the past seven years than I have. I think it’s ridiculous for them to fight because people are too slow to fill out a form in nine months. That’s not my problem. That’s their problem.”

But might the shift open the possibility of undermining pension guarantees in the future?

“I think it’s irresponsible to even say that. There’s no indication of that. It’s not going to happen next year — I can assure you. Maybe not for the next eight years. Read into that what you will.”

Big budget questions headed to House and Senate presiding officers

House and Senate negotiators agreed on $40 million in water projects and a $23 million higher education budget Sunday, but major decisions on charter schools, Lake Okeechobee restoration, and more remained unsettled.

Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala, respectively the House and Senate budget chairmen, made progress during what Latvala said would be their last meeting — although Trujillo said they’d meet once more, possibly on Monday morning.

“We are going to have another conference committee only for the conforming bills,” Trujillo told reporters. “It’ll happen within the next 48 hours at the latest.”

The chambers must wait three days to vote on a budget bill, but conforming bills require only 24 hours’ rest, he said. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Friday.

Regardless, clearly major policy and spending questions involving health care, the environment, school construction, criminal justice, and more will fall to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

“Ag and environment is one that we have a lot of work to do. In our subcommittees, we really struggled on that one,” Trujillo said.

And the public might not know what the big decisions are until the presiding officers reach deals and present the final bill.

“Just like any issues that bump, it will ultimately be laid on the desk,” Trujillo said.

“It’ll be laid on for 72 hours. Members will be able to debate and, ultimately, vote on the budget.”

Budget conferees spent the weekend wheeling and dealing. See here, here, and here.

Sen. Rob Bradley, chairman of the environmental budget subcommittee, emphasized the conference process’ accomplishments.

“We’ve resolved the water projects, which is obviously something that’s very important to a lot of the members. So, that was a big step forward in that area of the budget, to resolve that dispute between the two sides today. Everybody’s happy and we move on to the rest of the budget,” Bradley said.

Conferees bump university foundation-control question to budget chairmen

House and Senate higher education conferees agreed Saturday to trim cuts to developmental education programs at state colleges, but sent a disagreement about control of state university support foundations up the chain of command.

Lead Senate negotiator Bill Galvano indicated at one point during an afternoon meeting that the developmental spending might have to be referred to the House and Senate appropriations committee chairmen — Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala, respectively.

But House negotiator Larry Ahern agreed to a Senate offer to reduce the cut by $30.2 million. The original Senate budget would have cut around $90 million.

Developmental programs are intended to help nontraditional students cope in the classroom.

The foundations — also known as direct support organizations, or DSOs — were another matter.

“The House has its DSO position, and we are not going to the House position on it. That’s something that the big chairs are going to have to discuss and figure out. We just left it open,” Galvano said.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran entered the budget process intent on exerting control over the foundations, including opening more of their books to public scrutiny.

The committee didn’t reach formal agreement on the foundation policy bill, HB 5601, or on SB 374, spelling out the Senate’s reorganization of the state college system.

“They’re not necessarily bumped. Those policy issues are really not in controversy,” Galvano said.

Attendance by conferees during the meeting had declined markedly since negotiations opened on Thursday — “more and more as we closed out issues,” Galvano said.

“I think we had one of the more cohesive budget conferences. A lot of these big issues were Fourth Floor issues” — of interest to the presiding officers — “and have been around in both chambers. So when we came together, there was not as much to fight over,” he said.

House, Senate moving closer on civil and criminal justice spending

The main things separating the House and Senate on civil and criminal justice spending is whittling down Senate member projects and construction costs in the juvenile justice and prison systems.

That’s according to Rep. Bill Hager, the lead House negotiator, speaking following a conference subcommittee hearing Saturday morning.

“These are really not sticking points. It’s really the philosophical difference,” Hager said.

The talks opened with a $200 million gap between the House and Senate positions — the former intending to spend $4.8 billion, the latter $5 billion.

“The Senate proposed budget was substantially higher that the House. They’ve come down. We’ve shown goodwill — we’ve come up on some issues,” Hager said.

He figured the next meeting, sometime late morning, would resolve “90, 95 percent” of the remaining differences.

“It’s been hard to get to their numbers in the House, but we’re getting there,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, sitting in for Sen. Aaron Bean as lead Senate negotiator while other business occupied Bean.

Both sides agree that Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala should have fewer prosecutor slots, since she’s vowed never to seek the death penalty, although the Senate started out with a smaller cut, designed to shield Ayala’s human trafficking program — $622,000, compared to $1.3 million in the House, representing 21 positions.

“It’s not a cut of positions; it’s an allocation of positions consistent with work. It needs to be articulated that way, because that’s what it is,” Hager said.

The meeting was the occasion of rare public comment when Jack Cory, lobbyist for the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, told conferees of the complicated administrative process grant recipients must go through to get paid.

Legislative leaders have stressed that conference meetings would offer opportunities for public participation but, thus far this year, there have been few takers.

“Talking with the members, I think there’s been some misunderstanding that mentoring programs, juvenile prevention programs, and in fact many of the programs that you all have funded, that on the first of July the state writes us a check and pats us on the head and we just go our way. Nothing can be further from the truth,” Cory said.

In fact, oversight is such that his clubs were reimbursed for July 2016 expenses only on Oct. 1, he said, following multiple levels of oversight.

“As chairman of Government Oversight and Accountability, I’m encouraged we have that much accountability,” Baxley said.

PreK-12 conference eyes paltry per-student spending hike, with supplements

House and Senate negotiators have agreed on per-student spending in the PreK-12 education budget — and it wouldn’t go up much compared to existing spending.

The Senate side on Friday accepted the House call for 1.2 percent increase — to about $7,220.

The conferees were still talking about how much to spend on the House’s “Schools of Hope” charter school program and the Best and Brightest bonus program for top teachers.

Lead House negotiator Manny Diaz said the per-student increase would be supplemented by the charter school and teacher bonus investments. Each would attract around $200 million, but the details could change.

“It’s been our theme from the very beginning that we’re going to laser target those students in high-need areas,” Diaz said. “You have to look at it as a whole. The FEFP (ie: per-student spending) doesn’t tell the whole story.”

“To not count that in the investment in education is not correct,” Senate negotiator David Simmons agreed.

“We’re headed in the right direction, and we’re making the emphasis where emphasis needs to be made,” he said.

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